By DÁNICA COTO / AP

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — An explosive eruption rocked La Soufriere volcano on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent on Friday after the government ordered thousands to evacuate their homes nearby.

Experts said the first explosion shot an ash column 32,000 feet (10 kilometers) into the sky and that the majority of the ash was headed northeast into the Atlantic Ocean. Lightning crackled through the towering column of smoke and ash late Friday.

Heavy ashfall was reported in communities around the volcano and beyond, with authorities saying some evacuations were limited by poor visibility.

Several flights also were canceled and islands including Barbados, St. Lucia and Grenada prepared for light ashfall as the 4,003-foot (1,220-meter) volcano continued to rumble. Authorities reported two other explosions later Friday as the island braced for possible additional activity.

“More explosions could occur,” Erouscilla Joseph, director of the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center said in a phone interview, adding that it was impossible to predict whether they might be bigger or smaller than the explosions that have occurred so far.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from the eruption that occurred four days short of the 42nd anniversary of the last sizable eruption.

In the coastal town of Barrouallie, about 14 kilometers (9 miles) from the volcano, evacuees trudged toward shelters carrying backpacks, duffel bags and shopping bags stuffed with personal belongings after the explosion. Some prepared to stay there, while others were expected to board cruise ships and go to nearby islands that have offered help.

Others still waited for transportation to a shelter, including one family who stood for at least an hour by the side of a road under the sun with their children and suitcases as they awaited a ride from someone.

The volcano last erupted in 1979, and a previous eruption in 1902 killed some 1,600 people.

The new eruption followed mandatory evacuation orders issued Thursday for the roughly 16,000 people who live in the red zone near the volcano in the island’s northern region. More than 2,000 people were staying in 62 government shelters.

“We have had hiccups here and there … but by and large we are proceeding pretty well,” Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said in a press conference. He later wiped tears from his eyes and apologized for crying while he thanked people and other governments in the region for opening their homes and countries to St. Vincentians.

“On the dangerous road to Jericho, we have the good Samaritans,” he said.

He said that depending on the damage done by the explosion, it could take up to four months for things to go back to normal.

As dozens of people streamed toward safer ground, officials worried the pandemic could hamper evacuation efforts.

Gonsalves said people have to be vaccinated if they go aboard a cruise ship or are granted temporary refuge in another island. He said two Royal Caribbean cruise ships and two Carnival Cruise Lines ones arrived Friday. Islands that have said they would accept evacuees include St. Lucia, Grenada, Barbados and Antigua.

He said he was talking to Caribbean governments to accept people’s ID cards if they don’t have a passport.

“This is an emergency situation, and everybody understands that,” he said.

Gonsalves added that he highly recommends those who opt to go to a shelter in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, an island chain of more than 100,000 people, be vaccinated. Authorities said those staying in shelters would be tested for COVID-19, and that anyone who tests positive would be taken to an isolation center.

Emergency management teams have been going out to communities in the red zone and providing transportation to safer locations, including prearranged shelters, according to Joseph.

By late Thursday evening, shelters were filling up as a string of car lights making their way to safer ground twinkled through the darkened mountains.

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